Online Poker Strategy: Avoiding Free Cards

Free cards may be something to celebrate when you’re playing Monopoly, but they can spell trouble at the poker table.

By definition, you give your opponent a free card when you check instead of betting, thus allowing him to see the turn or river card without forcing him to call your bet (making him “pay to play”). This is a common mistake among novices who play too tight.

As psychologist and poker analyst Alan N. Schoonmaker, PhD, points out in his must-read book, “The Psychology of Poker,” that playing too conservatively “makes you check with hands most players, especially good ones, would bet. You do so to ‘save money,’ but it is a very expensive habit. Checking gives your opponents free cards, and some of those cards will beat you. You must bet (and raise) more often.”

More advanced players sometimes give their opponents a free card when they’re slow-playing a monster hand in an attempt to trap them into making a sizable bet. It’s a move many pros will make, but the strategy can sometimes backfire.

Top pro Daniel Negreanu learned this the hard way when he was in a showdown with rising star Kassem “Freddy” Deeb during the No-Limit Hold’em event at the 2004 Championship Poker at the Plaza tournament.

In heads-up play, Negreanu was the chip leader. He had steadily slow-played Deeb, which allowed him to steal more than a few pots. Then came the following hand.

Negreanu was dealt:


Deeb held the following, which gave him a 60% chance of winning the hand.


First to act, Negreanu bet $8,000, which Deeb called. The flop came down:


Negreanu had a set of queens and a 96% chance of winning the hand. He decided to bet only $15,000, hoping Deeb would think he was bluffing. Deeb took the bait and raised $30,000, which Negreanu called.

The turn card was dealt:


Negreanu was sitting pretty when Deeb, who had absolutely nothing, checked. He could have ended the hand right there by betting. Deeb, lacking even a pair, was bound to fold. But when Deeb, who was first to act, checked, Negreanu did the same, hoping Deeb would perceive him to be weak and giving himself an opportunity to extract more chips on Fifth Street.

The river card was dealt:


Now, Negreanu had a problem. There were three hearts on the board. If Deeb happened to hold two hearts, he’d have a flush. By checking instead of betting on the turn, Negreanu had given Deeb a free card on the river.

“That’s the only card I was worried about: a heart,” a perturbed Negreanu said aloud. “Silly me. I could have just won this pot on the turn. What did I do?”

Luckily for Negreanu, Deeb didn’t have the flush. But Negreanu knew he had placed his trip queens at risk. (Not to worry. He ultimately won the match, taking home $310,000 for his efforts.)

The moral of the story?

Slow-playing a hand can be a great strategy, but you have to weigh the advantages against the potential risks. If you give your opponent an out on the turn, you may set yourself up for a suckout on Fifth Street. Even when you’re sitting with a “sure thing,” a bad beat may be only a “heart-beat” away.